Rick Camac in conversation with Ignacio Mattos and Jason Pfeiffer

Ignacio Mattos and Jason Pfeiffer Know How to Make a Restaurant You’ll Love

The Chef-Owner and Executive Director of F&B for Mattos Hospitality stopped by ICE New York to educate and inspire the next generation of culinary managers

Clad in black Chuck Taylors and wide leg pants, the laid back energy of Chef Ignacio Mattos and Chef Jason Pfeiffer reads more like a matured garage band than two men at the helm of one of New York City’s most popular hospitality groups.

Over the course of their visit, Chef Mattos and Chef Pfeiffer shared with ICE students their individual journeys to realizing their path as professional chefs, what nuggets of wisdom they’ve gained along the way and what they think the future of the hospitality industry should look like.

Growing up on a dairy farm in Uruguay with his large Italian family, Chef Mattos recalled that “every conversation was about food.” But like many young people who develop a love for food, he didn’t consider it a legitimate career path, saying “food was connected to absolutely everything, but I wasn’t aware it was a possible career. Back in the day, back in Uruguay, [this industry] wasn’t what it is right now.”

This didn't stop Mattos from following his instinct to go culinary school, where he was exposed to a wider world through the international travel stories of his chef-instructors, but it was the actual work of a kitchen that really sealed Mattos’s fate, and continues to reinvigorate his passion to this day.

"As I entered the restaurants, the camaraderie, the sense of purpose, the discipline, the structure — but also the access to absolutely delicious things and constantly new things, it was love at first sight," Chef Mattos recalls. "And that never ends– there are still new things to discover and to find."

Chef Pfeiffer shared a similar “love at first sight” experience, though he arrived at food from a very different angle. At age 17, the outdoor enthusiast set out to hike the Appalachian Trail, learning as much as he could about wild mushrooms and plants along the way. And when he finished, he started hiking it again — this time ending up at a hostel and retreat center owned by a former chef, who took him on as a cook and encouraged him to attend culinary school and pursue a career in the culinary arts. Chef Pfeiffer took the advice, and vividly recalls walking into the kitchen at New York’s Gramercy Tavern for his pre-externship stage.

"I just remember walking into that kitchen and just feeling a sense of home that I hadn’t felt in my life anywhere else, and that never left me, kitchens have always felt that way to me," he says. "There’s a comfort for me in a kitchen that I just really don’t feel anywhere else — I feel really lucky to have found that so young."

From their early days as stages and line cooks, both chefs grew through experience and dedication. Chef Mattos took positions in kitchens around the world, while Chef Pfeiffer honed his craft in New York City, with the exception of a stint at Noma in Copenhagen.

By 2013, ChefMattos had opened his first restaurant, Isa, in Brooklyn, which he described as a “playful and odd kind of place” and by 2015 had a huge hit on his hands with the still-beloved (and now Michelin-starred) Estela in New York’s Nolita neighborhood. From there the group opened Soho staple Altro Paradiso as part of what has now become Mattos Hospitality. The group has continued to grow and produce charming, celebrated restaurants peppered across New York City in an impressive variety of venues, including museums and hotels.

All the while, Chef Pfeiffer had shot through the ranks of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group and transitioned from an Executive Chef role into a position as Director of Culinary Operations at Manhatta, a sky-high fine dining concept set 60 floors above New York’s Financial District. It was then that the two chefs decided to join forces.

The group now has five full-service restaurants in operation, and an additional one on the way according to hotel Nine Orchard’s website. The luxury hotel is housed in the completely refurbished Jarmulowsky Bank building on the Lower East Side, and Chef Mattos Hospitality manages all aspects of their food and beverage.

Chef Mattos reflected on the unique situation when answering a student question about how to conceptualize a menu, saying, “it’s important to understand where you are, what’s your location? What’s your purpose? We are in a hotel so we are running three restaurants plus room service from one kitchen, there are limitations in terms of space, so we need to work a menu that works horizontally and vertically, which means we have to make certain compromises along the way.”

While the demands of operating such a robust hospitality group are many, the chefs were eager to impart their wisdom about what they feel made them successful in their respective roles.

Chef Mattos’s trauma seemed fresh when talking about opening Alto Paradiso, saying, “the second place is the hardest thing you’re going to do. When I see someone opening their second place I really feel for them because it’s the first time you have to split. And we don’t know how to do that. Particularly coming from kitchens, we’re very passionate, we have a lot of heart, we’re giving it all our attention, and the moment you have to split, something happens there. You can’t be in both places at once and you have to put your trust in others and let go, and build a culture and a foundation that can sustain people who have autonomy and who think for themselves.”

Chef Pfeiffer similarly reflected on how a senior restaurant position is really all about the people.

“You go where the work is, where there’s need, and you try to provide support," he says. "Businesses progress, they change, they alter, it’s very fluid so you have to be flexible. Sometimes that’s you doing something, sometimes that’s hiring the right person, sometimes it’s training, etc.”

So what advice did the chefs have for a room full of eager Restaurant & Culinary Management students? Chef Mattos summed up his driving force in one word: Commitment.

"You just need to commit," he urges. "Wake up every day and try to do it a little bit better, but manage your expectations and don’t be afraid to make mistakes."

Chef Pfeiffer echos these sentiments.

"It’s not a career, it’s a passion," he says. "You’re going to have jobs that are incredibly difficult [you] know what you’re getting out of the work, you’re getting an incredible education, so you get up every day and you make that job the right choice. You say 'I’m gonna do this again and I’m excited to do it and I’m ready to do it.'"

More like this: Insights Into the Hospitality & Management Industry

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